Arsenal and Everton drew 1-1 on Sunday in a fantastic back-and-forth match between two teams high on style. Both sides passed the ball with confidence, and despite only coming away with a point, Everton's confidence will get a massive boost from having played so well at The Emirates Stadium.
One of the talking points during the game was how high Arsenal were defending wide free kicks. The game commentator said it was a dangerous tactic from the Gunners, as it invited the ball to be played in behind the defenders. I disagree, for a number of reasons.
1. The goalkeeper needs space if he is to come and attack the ball.
It is essential for the defenders to set a defensive line that gives the goalkeeper enough room to come and claim the ball if (when) it comes into the penalty area. It is a fine balancing act, though, and this is something that Arsenal do exceptionally well.
In the 15th minute, Everton had a wide free kick. Arsenal have not yet picked up their defensive marks in this picture, but it indicates just how high they are prepared to hold their line. They are not even ten yards from the line of the ball, and when the ball is played short by Everton, they are quick to react and force the ball away from goal.
Wojciech Szczesny has the entire penalty area to come and claim the ball if it is flighted into the box, which is all that he can ask for - an excellent example of a well-organized defensive line from Arsenal.
2. Defenders need to be ball-side, goal-side.
By this, I mean that good defenders are always in a position where they are favourite to win the ball if it is played in behind them, and can also get a challenge in if the ball is played into the attacker's feet.
When defending wide free kicks, it is imperative for the defender to be ball-side, goal-side. You do this by ensuring that you are “touch-tight,” meaning that you are close enough to touch the attacker, and closer to your goal than the attacker.
With a more central free kick, Arsenal still hold a very high line; they are inviting Everton to play the ball into the penalty area. But because they are ball-side, goal-side, they are favourites to win the ball when it comes into the area. The one Everton attacker that is in behind the defensive line is in an offside position, and must come back onside before the ball is kicked. At this point, the Arsenal defenders must get ball-side, goal-side, or they run the risk of being second favourite to win the ball.
3. If the defensive line is set too deep, the goalkeeper cannot react to a header or deflection.
This point was perfectly exemplified in Canada's 2-0 loss to the Czech Republic in November. Canada's defensive line was set so deep, that goalkeeper Lars Hirschfeld could do nothing about the first goal, scored in just the third minute of the game.
Look at how deep the Canadian defensive line is (in red). When the ball is flighted to the near post, Marcel de Jong is out-jumped by Ondrej Celustka, who heads the ball past Hirschfeld. The goal could have easily been prevented had Canada held a more aggressive defensive line nearer the 18-yard line. If the ball is floated in behind the defensive line, it is a much easier play for Hirschfeld to make.
Being a good defender is about assessing, prioritizing and mitigating risk. You always want to be in a position where you are favourite to win the ball if it comes into the most dangerous area - which is generally closer to your goal. But there is no hard and fast rule when it comes to your distances from the ball, when to drop in and when to hold your line. That is down to the judgment of the players, who must make those decisions based on their individual and collective skill sets. The best teams, like Arsenal at this point in time, are exceptionally well-organized and consistently make the right decisions as a group when defending.